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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What I believe in

I recently finished a second read of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, after having read the ARC many months ago. Comments on Jonathan’s original post continue to pop up over a month later, and we’ve been comparing it to many other books in subsequent posts.

Jonathan said in one such comment:

"I’m all for understanding that a plot-driven plot and a character-driven plot are trying to accomplish different things, and judging them accordingly, but to my mind both CATCHING FIRE and CALPURNIA TATE both suffer from the same problem–too many words–despite being fairly good examples of each type of plot.

"I think A SEASON OF GIFTS is an episodic, character-driven plot just like CALPURNIA TATE is and Richard Peck accomplishes just as much characterization and character development as Jacqueline Kelly does–but in half as many words. So just as I think you can make the criticism of CATCHING FIRE that the excess verbiage hampers the other literary elements, I think you can likewise argue the same for CALPURNIA. Just because the writing isn’t as average as CATCHING FIRE, that doesn’t mean that somehow the other literary elements are better."
 
I have to say that I don’t have the excess verbiage problem. I like every one of Kelly’s words. I am, however, like jay, commenting recently, "So over CT."  Very quickly into my re-read I started remembering why I both thought this would be a contender, and why I thought it shouldn’t win. 

Recall my curious problem with Catching Fire?  I couldn’t wait to get back to it, to see what would happen next, yet, while reading it, I found myself mostly unconvinced, manipulted, and bored?  I have the opposite problem with Calpurnia Tate.  Always engrossing while I was there. Not much pull to return to it when I wasn’t.

I have several structural quibbles with the book, each so minor I’m not sure it’s worth bothering here, but together adding up to a feeling that this story doesn’t quite hold together…and yet, it’s made of such good stuff that I can’t wait to see what Kelly dishes up next, and would be surprised if she doesn’t hit gold soon.

The "good stuff" is the characterization and the setting, both of which are convincingly real. That Texas heat is palpable. The house and the grounds clearly drawn in my memory, even before my re-read. The various brothers’ different personalities, the undercurrent of the parent’s romance colored by Victorian repression…each side character is intriguing.   These characters are as real to me as Peck’s…and I don’t understand why they should be better in fewer words.  CT never read wordy to me, though I can understand the sense of spinning on and on without action. 

In the end, it’s this vividness,…the fact that, while reading, I believe in these characters and this place, I feel that "I’m there," the author "disappears"…that makes me think this is stylistically strong. Weak on plot, yes, and in the end an unconvincing structure, but I can see why so many (female, book-nerdy) adults are fond of this title.

And to me, it still rises above several other titles that you all have asked us to take a look at, including these, which are all commendable, just not, to me, as Newbery contenders:

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had.  I didn’t finish it, but could see it was well-written, and could see exactly where it was heading. Read the reviews to confirm I wasn’t missing anything. Bottom line: I believed in the author more than I believed in the characters, from page 1.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. This was pitched for the "humor" category, though it’s not funny. The unreliable-narrator has a humorous tone that should help temper a very serious story…but in the end just slights the material. Same story has been done better. I do like the way this one zips along. 

Neil Armstong Is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me. Nice one. Main character is great, others are totally flat and simply not believable.  I was always extremeley aware of the author and of the story she wanted me to hear. 

Tropical Secrets.  Very nice, though I didn’t learn all I’d hoped to about the characters and the historical setting.  Seems like for as much as we got it could have been a much shorter book…I’d just have liked to have learned much much more than I did through some lovely depicted but ultimately flat situations. 

Wild Things.  Like Jacqueline Kelly, I can see that Clay Carmichael is a writer to watch for…but she may have a little farther to come.  I kept on putting this one down, then picking it up again, getting frustrated, putting it down. Wonderful characterization and setting…except that here and there, over and over, I can see Carmichael pulling the strings.  Such a well-drawn protagonist, I’d believe her for several pages, and then–darn! Something comes out of her mouth or mind that is not in character, and the ventriloquism fails. Also: the point of view of the cat. Not a good idea. 

Next to these, Calpurnia Tate is simply more convincing, and though I wouldn’t vote for it for the Newbery, I would be surprised to see it with a silver medal. It the perfect "Newbery type" isn’t it?…which may make it easier for some to forgive it its flaws.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Nina,

    I so appreciated this post.

    First of all, you articulated well what kept me also from bumping CT to the top of my list. I was sure what held me back from totally engaging for quite a number of pages and now I appreciate that it was structure more than too many words or even the plot. I too think Kelly is someone to watch.

    And then thank you so much for writing about these other books. I’ve read all, but the first and none of those I read felt as strong Newbery-wise as others I’ve been touting.

    Homer P. Figg. Whew, I thought it was just me, but it didn’t seem all that funny to me either. And it did seem as if others had done it better.

    Neil Armstrong — my sentiments exactly. It was just too uneven for me and I wanted to get a better handle on the main characters parents and never did.

    Tropical Secrets. I know something about this as I have family who ended up in Brazil for similar reasons. I realize that I’m an unduly critical audience for such books, but it felt unduly earnest to me.

    Wild Things. Me too! Me too! The picking up and putting it down. Particularly once I saw where it was going. The cat didn’t work well for me either and the boy, his story felt too deux ex machina somehow that he happened to be there, to be who he was, and then is gone.

    And

  2. leslie c says:

    Can you be more specific about what’s wrong the structure of Calpurnia Tate? To me it’s like a series of connected short stories that takes place from summer to winter. Each chapter lets us get to know CT and her family and her world more deeply. Some plot lines go through more than one chapter. And it ends perfectly, with the start of the new century. CT may or may not go on to be a natural scientist, but anything feels possible. It all holds together fine for me.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Several points–

    1. I should probably clarify. I don’t think the writing style is excessively verbose, I think there’s lots of writing and not much action. You could cut the novel almost in half and it wouldn’t adversely affect the quality of the literary elements.

    2. I don’t find the characters or the style that distinguished, and that is probably because I have read so many of Callie’s literary antecedents–spunky heroines with countrified and/or Southern voices–that they all sort of blend together for me.

    3. I understand that that there’s a lot of love for this book, but too many of the reponses focus on the love rather than the Newbery criteria. Do you really think that you love your favorite book more than I love my favorite book?

    4. I get why this book is in the Newbery conversation, but tell me again why it’s better than WHEN YOU REACH ME, CLAUDETTE COLVIN, CHARLES AND EMMA, A SEASON OF GIFTS, and other strong contenders mentioned here.

  4. a teacher says:

    Nina,

    I loved seeing the list of other “Newbery” worthy titles . . . Got any more, whether you’d vote for them or not?

    And if you wouldn’t vote for CT, what would you vote for at this point in time? WHEN YOU REACH ME?

    That’s the book that I’m kind of “so over”. I’m re-reading it to my 5th grade class right now and while I still like it, the magic of reading it the first time, the unknown, is gone. It’s fun seeing little things dropped it that went missed upon first reading, but the overall feel of a first reading, is gone completely for me.

  5. a teacher says:

    Books I’m seeing that are popping up on a lot of people’s “short lists” of mock Newbery’s, are . . .

    1. When You Reach Me
    2. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
    3. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
    4. Umbrella Summer
    5. The Dream Stealer
    6. Operation Redwood
    7. Day of the Pelican
    8. A Season of Gifts
    9. Also Known As Harper
    10. Al Capone Shines My Shoes
    11. All the Broken Pieces
    12. Anything But Typical
    13. The Year the Swallows Came Early
    14. The Magician’s Elephant
    15. The Rock and the River

    I hadn’t heard of UMBRELLA SUMMER, THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY, or THE DREAM STEALER. Anyone, any thoughts on any of those titles? If you search for mock Newbery lists, these are frequenting A LOT.

    ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL, and ALL THE BROKEN PIECES are popular on Amazon.com and well reviewed. They pop up on a lot of mock Newbery lists as well but I haven’t seen anyone here mention them. Any thoughts . . .

  6. Nina says:

    Teacher, as for The Dream Stealer, Day of the Pelican, Al Capone, All the Broken Pieces, Anything But Typical, The Year the Swallows, The Magicians Elephant….I’ve read them or at least enough of them to know that I wouldn’t champion them for the Newbery myself. I’m always open to others telling me exactly why they would…and then giving them a re-read. I’ll continue to look at some of the others on the list.

  7. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    “a teacher” wrote, about When You Reach Me, “…while I still like it, the magic of reading it the first time, the unknown, is gone.” Of course the magic of reading something the first time can never be repeated, but I found WYRM very satisfying, and more emotionally powerful, the second time. Knowing more about the characters and what was to come, I was moved to tears more than once, which I was not at all the first time (and I’m not usually at all, when I read). Last year, discussing the Printz winner Jellicoe Road, my sister and I commented that we had never read another book that we felt so compelled to re-read, and that it really could not be understood by reading once. And that the selection committee would have read its final choices more than once. So WYRM’s award potential may depend partly on whether committee members respond to a re-read of it more like you, or more like me.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think you make an excellent point about rereading, Laurie. Maybe an idea for a future post . . .

  9. GenShine says:

    The Year the Swallows Came Early is a lovely read that I expect will become a classic. I’ve read this twice now and it’s a book I come back to in thought often. Perhaps it will receive an Honor.

    When You Reach Me is a stellar read that entirely gripped me. Laurie’s comment about the magic of it being gone in a second read is an interesting one I hadn’t considered, as I hadn’t thought to pick up this book again. Also, I was able to figure out the mystery fairly early on.

    I also haven’t heard of Umbrella Summer. I’ll add it to my list. Next up is Calpurnia Tate.

  10. Debbie Reese says:

    Hmmm… Surprised me to see the “Honest Injun” oath in this book.

    Did anyone notice it?

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